Non-Being Is the Source of Being
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 6 - Metaphysics
Wing-Tsit Chan, from The Way of Lao Tzu
Kem Stone - 15 December 2007
Sometimes the choice that the editors of this volume make to represent a certain position baffles me. To stand
against Parmenides’ idea of uncaused being, they have presented an ancient eastern text central to Taoism, and
thus it has fallen upon me to offer a critique of certain tenets of a religion I know nothing about. The contrast
between this and every other text thus far presented is more than striking—there is almost no comparison. Not
only has every previous text been central to western philosophy while this suddenly throws in a bit of eastern
thought, this text is not so much philosophy as it is pure religion. It would be as if they tossed in the book of
Psalms to represent an argument for monotheism. The title they have given it, “Non-Being Is the Source of
Being” does not only misrepresent the main idea of this text, but it is inaccurate, as I will show that the concept of
Tao does not—at least as I see it—entail that being sprung from non-being.
“The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The
Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth. The Named is the mother of all things. Therefore let there always be
non-being, so we may see their subtlety. And let there always be being so we may see their outcome. The two
are the same. But after they are produced they have different names” (330). It seems completely crude of me, in
my ignorance of the basic philosophy of Taoism, to point out a logical error in this beautiful verse. For all I know,
when Chan says, “let there be non-being” he does not mean “non-existence exists” at all, but I will insist that such
a state of affairs is logically impossible. For non-existence to exist, it would have to exist, and therefore it would
not be non-existence. For non-being to be is self-contradictory, yet I suspect that the aim of this verse, and
indeed this entire text, is not to present an argument but to influence people into thinking more deeply into the
nature of being.
There are so many pearls of wisdom in this text that I am loathe to offer any counter-claims where I find
something I might disagree with. One line that particularly struck me was, “He [the sage] accomplishes his task
but does not claim credit for it. It is precisely because he does not claim credit that his accomplishment remains
with him” (330). This was written thousands of years ago and while I cannot pretend to know its intended
meaning, to me it means that it is better to abandon your ego than to claim credit for an accomplishment. This
smacks right up against the impulse in western culture to seek personal glory, but it makes perfect sense. If you
claim credit for something, it no longer belongs to you—it belongs to your name. If you have done a great deed
and nobody knows you have done it, it is yours forever.
But returning to the metaphysics of this text, we come to the first passage that really leads me to believe the
editors got it wrong in their interpretation. “Infinite and boundless, it cannot be given any name; It reverts to
nothingness. This is called shape without shape, Form without objects. It is The Vague and Elusive” (331).
What Chan describes here is not non-being but nothingness, which I would consider two entirely different
concepts. Nothingness can exist. If you have an infinite, boundless void, you still have something: void—or Tao,
or whatever you may call it.
That the Tao is not non-being is even more explicitly supported a few passages later: “There was something
undifferentiated and yet complete, Which existed before heaven and earth. It may be considered the mother of
the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Tao” (331). Whether this is only a peculiarity of the translation or if
it accurately represents the word Chan really used I do not know, but here we have the words “there was
something which existed before”. And something is most certainly not nothing. The Tao cannot be non-being, or
the nothingness that is the Tao could not be.
But more fascinating to me is how well this idea fits into my own metaphysical ideas about the creation of the
universe. I picture one consciousness suddenly awaking in a sea of nothingness, aware only of its own existence.
This thing then begins to imagine other things, and from this all concepts spring into being and eventually universes
are created of ever greater complexity until we finally arrive at a universe in which this thing imagines itself an
active participant in its creation as a human being which exists briefly and has forgotten its true nature. This is
more akin to the Brahman-Atman idea of Hinduism, but certain passages seem to suggest that the Tao is a similar
idea. “Tao is eternal and has no name. Though its simplicity seems insignificant, none in the world can master it.
If kings and barons would hold on to it, all things would submit to them spontaneously” (332). What could be
simpler than one conscious entity in a void? And if any participant in the world could somehow not only recognise
that it really is the creator of everything but master its abilities as the creator, there would be no limitations to what
it could do.
The Hindus describe death as a drop of water returning to the ocean, which I take to mean that a singular
consciousness in human form, divided from all other conscious beings while in the world, upon death will return to
its awareness as the consciousness in the void where there is no division at all. Chan says, “Analogically, Tao in
the world may be compared to rivers and streams running into the sea” (332). Unless my interpretation is
mistaken, this is exactly the same idea.
But the most striking passage of all in terms of the closeness of my metaphysical system to that of Taoism is: “Tao
produced the One. The One produced the two. The two produced the three. And the three produced the ten
thousand things” (332). My idea is that the singular consciousness imagined that its surroundings were darkness,
and imagined the concept of light to contrast this. From one idea it now had two, and from those two concepts
another concept—that of time, as a change from darkness to light—arose naturally. From these three concepts
even more could be derived and eventually we arrive at the birth of the first universe. The only point of possible
controversy is that “Tao produced the One” whereas I imagine that the One always existed. Yet reading this text
gives me pause, as I am forced to acknowledge that my description is one of a beginning—if there was no
beginning the One must have existed for an eternity before imagining anything, and if this were the case there must
have been some other force which was a catalyst for the first idea it came to form. Perhaps I must re-examine
everything, and consider that before the One there really was nothing, or at least another, higher One that
imagined this One into being. Whether the creation of One by a higher One is a chain of infinite regression, or
whether there really is a fixed starting point for all of existence is one of those mysteries beyond the ability of
anything at all—even God itself—to know for certain. I am only inclined to believe that there was always
existence due to the logical inconsistency that follows from asserting that at one point non-existence existed.
The final passages from this text are not metaphysical but ethical, and here is where I can really offer a critique.
“To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease. Only when
one recognises this disease as a disease can one be free from the disease” (333). This is a sentiment I agree with
wholeheartedly of course. Socrates said the same thing at around the same time, and since then great thinkers
including philosophers and religious teachers alike have been saying that there are things we can not know, and
that it is better to recognise our ignorance than to pretend we have overcome it.
But I am less inclined to agree with the next passage: “True words are not beautiful; Beautiful words are not true.
A good man does not argue; He who argues is not a good man. A wise man has no extensive knowledge; He
who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man” (333). Perhaps I misunderstand the meaning here, but I am
inclined to believe that there is beauty in truth, that there is value in arguments, and that it is possible to be wise
and to have extensive knowledge. Perhaps in Chan’s time, it was best not to argue, to be at peace with the world
and be content to know very little, but today I believe it is absolutely wrong to be a passive observer, content with
one’s own ignorance. Of course, my opinion rests on the presupposition that it is better for man to continue his
existence in the universe than to let himself be annihilated from the universe, and since Taoism goes much deeper
than humanity it may in fact be better that this brief period of human existence does come to an end. If that is
one's opinion, I will respect his spiritual detachment, but if he believes in the value of human life I will not hesitate
to condemn it.
The final passage is worth quoting because it is indeed what seems to be the common element of all spiritual
teachings, the most important aspect of any religion, and the way of thinking that in spite of its presence in the
human consciousness for thousands of years has yet to triumph over the darker part of our nature: “The sage
does not accumulate for himself. The more he uses for others, the more he has himself. The more he gives to
others, the more he possesses of his own. The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure. The Way of
the sage is to act but not to compete” (333). If we are all produced by the One, if we have all sprung from the
Tao, we are all interconnected on the most fundamental level possible. And if this is so we need to stop thinking
of ourselves as individual, divided beings with no obligation to one another, and to start recognising that we are all
One being, that when one suffers we all suffer, and that the right thing to do for those who have is to sacrifice for
the sake of those who have not.